SAN FRANCISCO — Tammy Calhoun traded a loaf of freshly baked bread and a few homegrown avocados for a neighbor’s help planting a vegetable garden in her front yard last month — a great deal she never would have come across before the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Seeing the mad rush for toilet paper and flour at the grocery stores, she started a bartering Facebook group in March for her Southern California city of Ventura so neighbors could trade for fresh fruit, paper towels or anything else they needed. Her bartering currency of choice is bread, and she once traded avocados for yeast to make it.
Calhoun’s group, which has gained more than 4,600 members in seven weeks, is one of a growing handful of similar groups sprinkled across the country from western Montana to southern Nevada. They represent a broader rise in bartering as grocery stores run out of goods and people share what they have. Those partaking say it keeps them out of crowded shops and saves a bit of money. But just as important, it’s a way to feel helpful during the pandemic.
In Frisco, Texas, Greg Bair traded freshly baked sourdough bread for the use of a neighbor’s wheat grinder. In southern Maryland, Lyn Cianflocco traded rolls of toilet paper for much-needed dish soap. In Fresno, California, Ashley Hughes picked up lemons from a neighbor and returned three days later with marmalade.
“It was a very unique way to connect with someone during a time when a lot of us are feeling alone,” Hughes said.
As the coronavirus pandemic took hold across the United States in March, grocery stores became chaotic as people tried to stock up on the basics. People were sent home from work as restaurants closed and social distancing laws were enacted. Shopping and ordering online became a hit-or-miss game.
Stores in many areas of the country have calmed a bit and are restocking staples, but unemployment numbers continue to rise as businesses cut back or shut down in the face of economic uncertainty. More than 30 million Americans have filed unemployment claims since the pandemic took hold in the United States, an unprecedented number in such a short amount of time.
Bartering is a natural side effect and one that frequently stems from an economic crisis, said Jim Stodder, an economist and visiting professor at Boston University. It happened during the Great Depression to such an extent many “community currencies,” or forms of local money, were created.
“Any time we have a serious downturn in which people are short of money, these things tend to pop up,” he said.
Some of those community currencies stuck around — BerkShares, used in the Berkshires region of western Massachusetts, is probably the best known surviving example. People can use regular money to buy BerkShares — one BerkShare costs 95 cents — which can be used to pay at hundreds of businesses in the region. Proponents say it fosters community spirit and keeps money flowing locally.
Professional bartering exchanges, which offer credit or bartering exchange funds for goods, are also reporting increased activity as businesses conserve cash and search for other ways to pay for business. Ron Whitney of the International Reciprocal Trade Association said there’s been a spike in interest in small businesses wanting to join exchanges since the pandemic began and cash became tight.
“Business owners are looking to fill the void that they lost,” he said.
But for most people, bartering (so far) is happening between neighbors and across online forums such as Facebook, Nextdoor and Twitter.
Veronica Coon started a trading Facebook group in Henderson, Nevada, after she saw long lines around Target and Costco as she drove with her husband to pick up their son from college.
She snagged a case of 12 packages of highly coveted baby wipes on Amazon and started giving them away to anyone who needed some, leaving them in a red crate on her front porch to observe social distancing. She also doled out two-pound Ziploc bags of rice, separated from her 50-pound bag online find.
Coon’s group is one of the most active in the country with more than 5,700 members — ballooning faster than she expected in less than two months. In the group, people post what they have to offer and what they would ideally accept as a trade. Others then comment if they’re interested in bartering. They contact each other privately to set up a time to meet, and most people exchange items from a distance, Coon said, or leave trades on front porches.
Calhoun’s group and many across the country work similarly and started up in March and early April, adding to scores of buy-and-sell groups already on Facebook. But nearly all the new bartering groups prohibit selling goods. Some have thousands of members and dozens of posts each day.
Facebook said it doesn’t track the number of bartering groups. However, spokesperson Leonard Lam said there are 4,000 covid-19 support groups in the U.S., which could include some of the bartering groups.
At first the groups were filled with people looking mainly for hand sanitizer, baby wipes and paper towels, members of the groups say. Now many are trading for face masks, although another frequent request has been the elusive Lysol spray.
Coon, a hairdresser, is out of work, and her husband’s hours have been reduced.
“There are so many people in the valley who have been helped,” she said.
In Fresno, Hughes said, the now 3,300-member bartering Facebook group she started in March has also been active with people searching for masks and sanitizer. But people are also searching for seedlings to start gardens or video game swaps to stay entertained.
“I think that this pandemic has taught us that we are only as well off as our neighbors,” she said.
In nearly all the groups, users are going the extra mile to make sure everyone gets helped, even if they have nothing to trade in return. Many posts have shifted to people offering goods — extra paper towels or masks they don’t need — and refusing anything in return. In the Ventura group, people gave away avocados, yeast and even a stroller.
“I’ve seen amazing feats of generosity,” said Calhoun, the Ventura-based organizer and bread baker. One neighbor reads to area kids each morning. Several people pitched in to furnish a home for someone who had lost their job.
Calhoun got help with her garden from Taylor Buck and his partner, Julie Lemos, who have built garden boxes and helped plant about 10 gardens full of tomatoes, corn and other edible plants in people’s yards. They posted in the Facebook group and asked for nothing in exchange, but many people offered bread or guavas anyway.
While bartering happens every time there’s a significant economic downturn, it’s not practical or sustainable for a modern society to keep things up and running, cautioned University of Oregon economics professor Tim Duy.
“It’s still inefficient,” Duy said. “I have to have what you want, and you have to want what I have.”
But for many, neighborhood bartering groups have simply turned into a way to help others during a scary time.
In Friday Harbor, a small community on San Juan Island off the coast of Seattle, arborist Casey Baisch bartered even before the pandemic. He has traded his tree-tended services to his neighbors for use of their backhoe, for example, or for some freshly caught fish.
During the pandemic, he’s told some customers they can wait to pay him until the crisis is over. Last month, he helped someone with their overhanging branches in exchange for a meatball sandwich lunch.
“I said, ‘thank your wife for the sandwiches, this one’s on her!’” he added.